Holding onto hope by your fingernails?

Burnout is a particular risk for those in the trenches of front line church, care and community work. If you are the person who is seen to hold hope for the community, what happens when you find yourself digging from a dry well? Livability’s Corin Pilling explores the challenge of hope in community work.

Many church, community and care workers find ourselves holding hope in places that often experience a ‘hope deficit,’ which requires us to dig deep into our reserves. We may be called to cultivate hope at all times, yet this can create ‘pinch-points’ when the balance is tipped and we find ourselves lacking the resource we need. The ideal of building hope-filled communities can feel rather distant from the reality of grinding away at the coalface for many years and we find our personal resources depleted.

Christina Maslach, author of ‘Burnout: the Cost of Caring’, describes burnout as a state of physical, emotional and mental exhaustion marked by physical depletion and chronic fatigue, feelings of helplessness and hopelessness, and by development of negative attitudes towards work, life and other people’ Christina identifies the following symptoms:

  • Decreased energy -‘keeping up the speed’ becomes increasingly difficult
  • Feeling of failure in vocation
  • Reduced sense of reward in return for pouring so much of self into the job or project
  • A sense of helplessness and inability to see a way out of problems
  • Cynicism and negativism about self, others, work and the world generally

If you are experiencing this, you face a huge challenge. The experience of burnout is often accompanied by a deep sense of shame or guilt which arises from an acute sense of helplessness. This double-punishment can be hard to bear. After all, many of us build our lives or ministry or work on a stronger story of hope. When we speak of thriving and resilience, but don’t experience it due to exhaustion, we can feel an enormous burden of not living up to our aspirations.

We can also unfairly compare ourselves to others. We all have such different capacities, gifts, and struggles. The comparison game may be fatal when we look to other leaders who seemingly have it all together. The reality is that we only see the ‘front stage’, and rarely what is falling apart behind the scenes. Vulnerability can seem costly, yet it is important that there are relationships where we exhibit it. If we do not, we run the risk of living in denial of our unique needs.

In a short article such as this, we can only scratch the surface of a complex issue. The list below provides only some pointers of how to respond. It is borne of my own experience of rebuilding after experiencing burn out on the front line.

1) Ask for help. Change will rarely happen without the right kind of structured support. Commit to the time needed to make change, and recognise it will take time.

2) Let go of self-condemnation and aim to practice self-compassion. Our internal scripts might offer only negative thoughts- instead, ask yourself ‘What would I say to a good friend who was experiencing these thoughts?’

3) Remember that your body needs extra care: It is easy to forget this. Increased rest and exercise are obvious starting points. Also, trying new things can help. Running and meditation worked for me – providing room to experience difficult emotions was also important.

4) Ask yourself the question ‘What gives me life?’ Compiling a list of simple daily pleasures, and spending time with those who ‘get’ you becomes essential. I also compiled of list of ‘death- dealing activities’ as a reminder of what to avoid.

5) Work to change your thinking. Know that this is often the biggest barrier. Just because it once worked, it doesn’t mean it works now – we all change and our needs do, too. Commit to reading up on the topic regularly.

6) Cultivate new spiritual practices. Is there a new gift to be discovered? There may be other ways to encounter God in the midst of struggle that can help you carve a life- giving path. Extroverts may even find themselves drawn to quieter spiritual activities such as retreats.

7) Recognise that your struggle is universal, yet deeply personal. Many of us recover remarkably well from burnout and our empathy may increase for those with similar struggles.

If you are experiencing ongoing exhaustion the first port of call should be your GP. Don’t take chances with your health.

The burnout cycle of those is church and community work is a well- worn trope. Let’s start to change the script, so we might continue to live hope-filled and sustainable lives in our communities.